No, just kidding….
#1: Ikoku Meiro no Croisee
Fundamentally, lists like these are always personal choices. What we’re choosing isn’t the “best” anime (or movie, or album) but our favorite. Anything else is subjective, and while I’ve mulled over whether this series might be the objective ‘best” of 2011 there’s no question Ikoku Meiro is the series I loved the most. There were two anime this year that I felt totally connected with me, as if they were written specifically for my particular makeup – this one and Colorful, the best anime movie of the year. AnoHana came close, but I think it’s appeal is a little broader than this series’ – which is certainly reflected in the sales. It has nothing to apologize for, and I love it dearly – but Ikoku Meiro is the show closest to my heart.
The last show that packed the kind of emotional wallop that the top two series of 2011 did was Cross Game. I don’t mean to imply that Ikoku Meiro or AnoHana are as good as CG – they’re not, in my view – but It had the luxury of 50 glorious episodes to weave it’s magical tale in pure Adachi fashion. And AnoHana, though only 11 episodes, told a complete and self-contained story. This one is only a small piece of the larger story the manga tells, and thus it perhaps isn’t as momentous an achievement, but in my view Satelight have created something absolutely magical here. I see the term “labor of love” tossed around a lot, but it really applies to the job this Franco-Japanese studio, director Yasuda Kenji and writer Satou Junichi did with this adaptation of Takeda Hinata’s manga. Every detail is carefully planned, right down to the layout of the Galerie du Roy (actually modeled after a 19th-Century shopping gallery still existing in Brussels) and the placement of every piece of furniture and knick-knack in the shop and apartments of Claude and Oscar Claudel.
In the last two years, only this show and Sarai-ya Goyou have explored human relationships with as much subtlety and depth. I’m not angry at those who dismissed this as “the French loli show” but I am sad for them, because there’s so, so much more to this series than how cute Yune is. She, Claude and Oscar are incredibly complex and fascinating characters, and watching their connection grow over 12 episodes was my greatest anime pleasure this year (along with the entire plot of Colorful). There was astute commentary about the difference between the Japanese and European way of thinking, and virtually peerless – in anime, anyway – reflection on the class system as it existed (and still exists to some extent) in Europe. Best of all was the complexity of the relationship between Yune and Claude, and the way Oscar subtly used his almost mystical knowledge of human nature to gently guide them. All three would be be on my shortlist for best character of 2011, and the supporting cast is worthwhile as well. Alice was an acquired taste and the weakest character in the series, in my view, but she did prove essential and even more importantly was the vehicle to bring older sister Camille into the story. With Camille came an entirely new level of emotional entanglement and social commentary.
I can’t discuss La Croisée dans un labyrinthe étranger without talking about the magnificent soundtrack, easily my favorite of 2011. The OP and ED are wonderful, and the BGM is both period and culturally appropriate. And the selection of songs from the BD extra episode 4.5 (absolutely essential to understanding the characters and a superb piece of writing), including Japanese traditional music and my favorite anime song of the year, the original “Tooku Kimi he”, is superb. And check out the Picasa page of animator Thomas Romain to see some of the attention and affection that went into rendering 19th-Century Paris with such exquisite detail. It all adds up to a transformative experience, bringing you to another place and time and immersing you in the emotional world of the three leads. Compared to some great series Ikoku Meiro is a humble show, a modest story about the everyday lives of common people, but everything about it is exceptional. Without a doubt, Ikoku Meiro is my #1 anime series for 2011.
#2: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai
There were three series and three only that made me cry in 2011, and AnoHana was the only one that made me cry more than once. The show as an emotional powerhouse from the starting bell, and never let up for an instant until the final frame. It’s hard to believe anyone could get so much character development crammed into NoitaminA’s 11-episode format, but writer Okada Mari (who holds down two of the top four spots of the year, yet still drives me crazy) and director Nagai Tatsuyuki did just that. There are reports that Nagai and A-1 Pictures stopped Okada-san from writing a very different story, one full of ecchi and fanservice moments – I don’t know to what extent that’s true, but to be honest I really don’t care. The finished product is what it is, and it’s a great show.
What stands out for me about this series is that not a moment was wasted, and there wasn’t a mediocre episode in the entire run. The series was built around six teenagers, and they were all remarkably well-developed by the second episode. You just don’t see the kind of subtlety and complexity in character construction that you saw here very often – these were fascinating kids, all a stark contrast with each other, yet drawn together by a tragedy that will, stay with them forever. This was basically a slice-of-life drama played out through a magical realism scenario, and whether she was pushed into it or not, the style suited Okada perfectly. AnoHana is an unapologetically emotional and dramatic show, never afraid to bare the souls of its characters and dig very deep into what makes them hurt. Yet ultimately, I think it’s a hopeful and optimistic show, and I think each of the characters is better off for the painful journey they take in the series.
I was gratified and frankly very surprised to see this show prove as popular as it did, possibly the second best-selling series of 2011 after Madoka Magica. Though the series revolves around teenagers I don’t really see it as commercial story – there’s not much romance, and almost no fanservice. It’s just a lot of dramatic heavy lifting, without much in the way of shortcuts and instant gratification. I love all the cast, especially “beaten dog” Jintan, who’s pain has turned him from a confident and charismatic child into a quiet and reclusive young man. All six members of the Super Peace Busters fit together like an emotional jigsaw puzzle, unable to be complete without the others, and not even death or the end of childhood can truly dissolve their bonds. It all adds up to an amazingly powerful story, one of the most dramatic anime in years, helped along by the superb cast (including a reunion of the three leads from Cross Game, the last great emotional powerhouse anime before this one) and a terrific soundtrack – including the peerless ED version of the Japanese classic “Secret Base”. If you haven’t seen it, watch it – but be prepared for an emotional barrage pretty much every episode.
In reality I could have made a strong case for any of the top three shows as the best of the season, and Steins;Gate is certainly no exception. It’s probably the most accomplished series of the year, when you factor in the complexity of the enterprise and all aspects of the production. The fact that White Fox was able to take a VN and turn it into a 24-episode anime that both anime-only viewers and VN enthusiasts (who were both numerous and fanatical) could enjoy was a remarkable achievement. This is a twisting, elaborate rat’s maze of a story that was made both suspenseful and approachable for the first-time viewer, and I give much of the credit to brilliant screenwriter Hanada Jukki.
As befits such a high-ranking series, there isn’t much not to like. Visuals were superb, pacing was top-notch and the cast was among the best ensembles of the year. I found the dialogue in S;G to be remarkably good, funny and clever but also possessed of a snappy rhythm that felt like something that came out of Hollywood in the 1940’s. Having visited many of the series locales in Akihabara I especially enjoyed the accuracy with which they were portrayed on-screen. This may be the best otaku series ever, both for the affectionate but not sentimental portrayal of those who share that passion and for the way those pursuits are seamlessly integrated into the story.
I think this is a show that’s going to stand the test of time and become an anime standard, both because of its high quality and broad appeal. No other series generated such interesting debates and discussions, and White Fox did a perfect job teasing the story without frustrating the audience. It featured one of the most engaging romances of the year despite not being a romance, a great catch phrase (“Tuturu!”) and some of the most hilarious scenes in recent memory. Yet it could also be harrowing, disturbing and heartbreakingly sad. As always, the secret is that the show is totally grounded in the characters – they drive everything that happens and the fact that we care so much about them gives the story its punch. Okabe Rintarou (brilliantly played by Miyano Mamoru) may be the best character of the year – he’s in the running for sure – and his very different but equally compelling relationships with Kurisu and Mayuri formed the heart of the drama. The supporting cast was fantastic as well, even relatively minor players rising above the level of plot devices. It’s a terrific series, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what White Fox does with the franchise from here, starting with the movie in 2012. El Psy Congroo.
#4: Hourou Musuko
I knew from the very beginning that this series was going to be something special, as it had probably the finest first episode of any 2011 series. And Hourou Musuko was always aware of the urgency of its situation, with a manga approaching 100 chapters and only 11 episodes to work with. Possibly the most important decision AIC made with Hourou Musuko was one of the very first they made – to adapt only a fairly narrow section of the manga and not try for a comprehensive re-telling. That they were able to perfectly capture the feel and tone of the source material is a testament to the skill of director Aoki Ei (who had a terrific 2011) and writer Okada Mari.
It must be pointed out that much credit for how great this show is should fall to mangaka Shimura Takako. Still, AIC really nailed it – starting with a terrific cast led by 14 year-old Hatakeyama Kosuke as Nitorin. This is about as good as school life anime gets, creating a real sense of danger for its characters as they wade through the minefield of adolescence and middle school. While the main characters certainly have uncommon problems – Nitori Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl and Takatsuki Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy – their emotions are universal and so is their pain. The cast is full of complex and fascinating characters who feel solid and real. I was also impressed by the delicate, watercolor look of the art and the outstanding soundtrack. I wish the series had been much longer but frankly, it’s a miracle that it was made it all, and that it managed to communicate the beauty and poignancy of the manga as well as it did.
#5: Usagi Drop
Usagi Drop was, in a word, terrific. Setting aside all controversy surrounding the manga – and I think every anime should be judged on its own merits – Usagi Drop was a smart, sensitive and funny look at a relatively underrepresented figure in anime, the Dad. And while Rin was undeniably adorable and an amazing child, I really see this as Daikichi’s story. He’s GAR in a subtle way very few characters are, and in my view one of the best characters of 2011. I also loved Rin’s mischievous friend Kouki, who added a great sense of fun and randomness to the show. Full kudos to Production I.G. for a great job here – the series has an understated but lovely look, and they made many wise choices in this adaptation, not least of which was casting real children as Rin and Kouki. With material this emotional there was always a risk of the series becoming manipulative, but I.G. showed admirable restraint with this adaptation and the show as at its best tackling the complications of routine, everyday life.
#6: Mawaru Penguin Drum
Maddening, infuriating, fascinating, stunningly beautiful, elegiac and ultimately disappointing – I can only call Mawaru Penguin Drum a work of deeply flawed genius. It was hard work to watch this show, but no other series in recent memory was so deep in symbolism and intricate of plot. Ikuhara definitely tried to do too much here, and frankly he failed to totally bring it all together in the end. But despite that, I think about this show as much as any from 2011. It was relentlessly creative, occasionally very funny and found some real emotional power in the last few episodes. I hope the wait for the next Ikuhara series is shorter than the last one.
I’ve already slaughtered a lot of words talking about Working in the last 24 hours, having just completed my finale and series reviews for it, so you can always check those out for more detail about why I love this show so much. It actually ended up one spot higher than on last year’s list, but it’s a great victory that it made it at all. Not only was this a sequel, but it didn’t have the comforting familiarity of a completely unchanged staff like Mitsudomoe did. But as a whole the show didn’t miss a bit – the second half of this season was much better than the first, but the overall quality was just about on-par with the first season. If fortune smiles on us, perhaps we’ll be seeing Working’!@# – or whatever pointless punctuation marks they cram into the title – on the 2012 list, thought I suspect it’s more likely we’ll see the third season in 2013.
#8: Kamisama Dolls
This is very much a personal choice, I admit. But this is my list, and I love KamiDolls. This is a show that does a little of everything, and does it well. There's a timeless quality to KamiDolls – it’s a series that would have felt perfectly at home in 1990 or 2000, and it’s the sort of series that made me love anime in the first place. A little sci-fi, a little comedy, a little sex, and above all a really smart and intricate premise to support the entire structure.
This was another series that started off pleasantly enough, but without giving too many hints about how great it was going to be. It could always surprise – surprisingly violent, surprisingly deep, surprisingly subtle. The seventh episode was the most striking, arguably the best anime episode of 2011, a melancholy and powerful flashback that revealed just how corrupt and venal the true nature of Karakami village was. Things were never as simple as good vs. evil here – the line between villain and victim was always shifting, as characters like Aki and Mahiru proved themselves to be a product of the village’s sick belief system. Kyouhei was a refreshing lead – a young adult with real young adult problems –and the supporting cast was terrific. There was a bit too much fixation on Utao as a moeblob at times, but generally speaking this was a briskly-paced and always entertaining series that was full of good directorial choices by Seiji Kishi. I loved the slightly retro but still polished animation style, and the panache and creativity that went into the OP and ED. It was just a class effort all the way, another winner from probably the hottest studio in the business, Brain’s Base. KamiDolls in just plan good anime, and one of my favorite series of 2011.
#9: Mitsudomoe Zouryouchuu
While 2011 has been about average on the whole, I think it’s been a slightly down year for comedy after a stellar 2010. Shinryaku Ika Musume has been excellent but just a tick below last year, and Baka Test went from a classic to an outright disaster. But Mitsudomoe, despite the handicap of being given only 8 episodes to work with, managed to produce another season of hilariously inappropriate comedic gems.
Starting off with an inspired full-length “Baka Rangers” super sentai send-up complete with OP and ED, comedic genius Ohta-sensei frantically packed 13 episodes worth of hilarity into the shortened season. The highlight for me was the “Titanic” spoof with Hitoha at the water park, but there were many more hits than misses. Like Working, Mitsudomoe succeeds in using a wide variety of comedic styles because all of them are grounded in the character, and both the Marui triplets and the large supporting cast are top-shelf. I love this series, Working, and Ika Musume in different ways, but the fact is that Mitsudomoe simply delivers more huge laughs per-minute than any other series in the last couple of years. I always wonder why this show isn’t more popular – perhaps it’s the lack of any teenaged females, or maybe it’s just too dark to fit most viewers ideas of what a comedy should be. But I’ve always felt this was a show that found the sweet spot between nastiness and genuine affection for its characters, for all the abuse they take.
#10: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I’ll be be honest – there are probably more than 10 series I enjoyed more than this one from 2011. And I think it’s a perfect example of how a series can be very good and still be extremely overrated. Nevertheless, this is a hugely important show, for all its faults it was damn good, and it just wouldn’t have felt right leaving it off the list.
Everything about Madoka Magica was larger than life, right down to the timing of the finale – the 10th episode of the series aired on 3/10/11. With the delay – blamed on the earthquake but more likely the usual SHAFT production delays – the hype and myth around the final two episodes grew to ridiculous proportions. Whether you feel they – or the series – lived up to that is almost irrelevant. It says something about Urobuchi Gen’s status as a writer that Shinbo was very much a secondary figure with this show, and I actually think that’s good, for Shinbo is at his best when he’s working with a writer whose strong and individual style tempers his own St. Vitus Dance of a creative style. There was always something to argue about with this series, and it was chock full of big ideas as it turned the Mahou Shoujo genre on its ear with a relentlessly dark and despairing storyline. In the end I think for all the intellectual density it never quite came together, and the ending was muddled and had a slightly artificial tinge to it. But how many other anime can say they gave birth to a religion? In the final analysis this may end up being the most widely-debated series – and ending – since Evangelion.
And by the way – Kyubey is still eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.
Honorable Mention: R-15
Though it didn’t quite make my top 10 for the year, I couldn’t let the opportunity to plug this show one last time – I really think it’s in a special category. It’s both the most underrated and most surprising show of 2011 in my opinion, and it’s one I really didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did. The concept seems extremely low-brow – a genius 15 year-old porn writers attends a school for prodigies in all fields – the animation is low-rent, and the cast is mostly unknown. But once I started watching it I was shocked to find that R-15 is unabashedly sweet, good-hearted and believe it or not, deep. There’s a lot happening here – a very compelling love triangle, astute commentary on the competing sides of human nature (love vs. lust) and some very clever situation comedy. Yes it’s raunchy and campy and absurdly censored in its TV form (if by some miracle this persuades you to watch it, please watch the Blu-ray editions) but it’s one of the most likable shows of the year.